5 Factors to Consider Before You Leave Faculty Life


In a recent essay,Tenured, Trapped, and Miserable in the Humanities,” William Pannapacker asks, “Why are so many tenured professors unhappy with their jobs but unable to change careers?” At first, I found it cathartic just to see the question in print.

In 2011, as an associate professor of English at a small southern college, I had been in a similar professional quandary. And in the immediate aftermath of my career switch, I had similar musings about whether other faculty members were living lives of quiet desperation, too, and what it might take for those of us who felt that way to leave the professoriate entirely.

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In a recent essay,Tenured, Trapped, and Miserable in the Humanities,” William Pannapacker asks, “Why are so many tenured professors unhappy with their jobs but unable to change careers?” At first, I found it cathartic just to see the question in print.

In 2011, as an associate professor of English at a small Southern college, I had been in a similar professional quandary. And in the immediate aftermath of my career switch, I had similar musings about whether other faculty members were living lives of quiet desperation, too, and what it might take for those of us who felt that way to leave the professoriate entirely.

But that was 10 years ago. I did leave my tenured job. And although I’ve remained within higher education in various administrative roles at two research universities, in the eyes of academics, I crossed the Rubicon. Today, what remains interesting to me is the question of what makes a career switch possible for people — like tenured professors — who have put so much time and energy into staying in one place (institutionally, academically, and geographically).

Without survey data on vocational dissatisfaction, however, we don’t actually know how many tenured professors are “miserable” in their positions. We do know that some academics — especially at poorly funded institutions — face the very real and challenging work conditions that Pannapacker outlines. And we also know, as his essay acknowledges, that adjunct faculty members fare far worse.

What follows is not yet another contribution to the “quit-lit” genre. I’m not trying to entice my fellow Ph.D.s to find the exit or, for that matter, induce you to stay. Rather, I seek to offer a decade of post-faculty experience and perspective as you try to imagine life “on the other side.” Here I present five challenges you can expect in your transition from a tenured or tenure-track position into a new career.

No. 1: Leaving may not solve your “morale problem.” Your professional dissatisfaction may have little to do with where you fall on some imagined binary: inside academe versus outside it, faculty versus “alt-ac” positions. Careers, wherever they unfold, are complicated. They are dynamic things that can’t be explained through reductive categories.

Even as I plotted my exit from the professoriate, I could see that many of the colleagues at my small college remained committed to, and deeply engaged with, the faculty path they had chosen. And I know now that, had any one of the dozen factors contributing to my exit been different, I might have stayed and made the best of it.

Looking back, I wish I’d had a way to pinpoint and understand aspects of my professional malaise that were not tethered to external factors. Professional challenges often take the form of the circumstances in which you find yourself: “I am miserable because I am at an under-resourced state institution” or “… because I can’t land a tenure-track job,” or “… because higher education has sold its soul.” What’s much harder to see are the ways in which your ingrained responses to those external challenges contribute to your internal dissatisfaction.

Why is that important? Because there’s a very real chance that, should you switch careers, the problems that plagued you as a faculty member might simply follow you elsewhere.

Professional transitions are challenging for everyone, regardless of occupation. But tenured professors may encounter especially steep challenges for two well-established reasons:

  • Academe — both in its training and in its reward structure — conditions people to hyperspecialize, whether that focus is scholarship (at research universities) or teaching (everywhere else).
  • Faculty life leaves underdeveloped some skills and habits of mind (detailed below) that turn out to be crucial in a variety of employment settings.

No. 2: The pace of change is faster outside of the professoriate. In recent years, higher education has been evolving at breakneck speed — a fact that has left many tenured professors deeply unhappy. We are seeing changes in how faculty members are trained and hired, in how they teach, and in the extent to which they wield authority and influence on their campus. Professors in the humanities, in particular, can be deeply attached to their ideals about the “life of the mind” and about what a college or university ought to be or even look like.

It’s possible that higher education selectively attracts people who are change-averse. How many academics first sought out graduate school because we wanted to keep reading books and stay in college?

Yet — as I discovered after I quit my tenured job — things tend to speed up once you leave faculty life. One of my earliest observations was that more could happen in an administrative position in a month than in a full-time professorship in an entire academic year. As a faculty member, your core duties of teaching, research, and service remain relatively stable over decades.

But in most other careers, what you do on the job will be dictated by the needs of your employer, not by your intellectual passions. So if you’re tempted to leave your academic department because it no longer looks like the field you entered 20 years ago, consider that your new chosen field could look radically different within just a few years’ time.

No. 3: Difficult people and toxic situations exist outside of academe, too. You might not be getting along with folks on the campus — be it your dean, your chair, your colleagues, or your students. Would leaving them behind solve your problems? Sure, colleges and universities are known to harbor dysfunctional work dynamics, but there are troubled organizations and noxious personalities everywhere. What’s more, you might be part of the problem. Academic training is not known to encourage the formation of “soft” skills, such as diplomacy and direct communication.

Most frequently, I see interpersonal conflict developing between two or more well-meaning academics simply because they’ve been conditioned to equate their deepest selves with what happens on the job. If you cannot put some professional distance between who you are and what you do, then anytime someone makes a workplace decision you don’t like, you will take it deeply and personally.

There’s often a similar lack of attention given to defining your professional demeanor in arenas other than the college classroom. Most effective faculty members set terms of engagement with students and have clear boundaries about how they will (and won’t) show up in a classroom setting. But how many times have you seen colleagues “shoot from the hip” with emotional, knee-jerk reactions to their peers in department meetings?

This is all to say: If you leave academe, difficult personal interactions are not behind you. There’s much you can do to improve your future work relationships, but a realistic awareness of your own limitations on this front is a great place to start.

No. 4: You will fail. I don’t mean to suggest that you will fail in your attempt to change careers (an assertion that would be unkind, demoralizing, and most likely untrue). Rather, your path forward will be strewn with failures — many of them small and some even dumpster-fire sized. This is inevitable, given that you’ve invested most or all of your educational and professional career into doing one thing. When you stop doing that thing, you need to relearn how to be successful at some other thing.

Individual growth and development can be plotted on something called a “competence ladder” (a term not used in academe, but probably should be):

  • When you move on to a radically new role or challenge, you fall from the top rung called “unconscious competence” — the effortless mastery of something, like teaching or research — to the bottom.
  • The bottom rung is “unconscious incompetence.” It’s the blissful ignorance of what you don’t know, and it also feels pretty good.
  • But moving up to Rung No. 2 is a killer. You may be stuck there at “conscious incompetence” — a painful awareness of all the things you haven’t learned yet to succeed at your new gig — for a good long while.
  • Rung No. 3 — “conscious competence,” or steadfastly applying new learning — may be more within your comfort zone, but it is still hard.

Starting over from that bottom rung can be hard gospel for academics who are perfectionists and — in extreme cases — success addicts. It can also be hard for ex-tenured professors to see how the defense mechanisms they developed to ward off academic failures (such as deliberating at length over every decision, exerting control over every facet of their projects, and doing research exhaustively on any topic) can backfire in fast-paced, nonacademic settings.

No. 5: Upon leaving faculty life, you might struggle to figure out who you are, and what you have to offer. “When people ask me what I do,” writes Pannapacker, in the closing line of his essay, “I now say, ‘I used to be an English professor.’” That line resonates because it’s impossible to understand how deeply academe has formed your sense of self until you try to leave it behind.

It can be a challenge to refashion an identity that doesn’t begin with “I used to be this, but now I’m not.” It can be even more difficult for those Ph.D.s who leave faculty life but shift to an administrative or staff career in higher education, where the fact of once-having-had-tenure can still confer a surprising amount of capital. But you can’t build a new career if you’re always looking in the rearview mirror. Different roles demand different kinds of contributions, which must be aligned with the needs of the employer that hired you, and the people who now depend on you.

Again, I am not trying to talk you out of leaving the professoriate, should you decide that’s best for you. But it’s helpful to make life-altering, go-or-stay decisions with as much information as possible. To that end, I have a modest suggestion.

Don’t wait until you’ve quit a tenured job — and are struggling with a new profession and a steep learning curve — to confront all the ways in which academe has left you unprepared for broader horizons. Think about them now:

  • What would it look like, for example, to strengthen your existing relationships with your colleagues, students, and mentees?
  • How can you build your tolerance for change and risk by experimenting with new forms of teaching, new modes of research, and with different kinds of collaborators, such as off-campus partners in your town or region?
  • When was the last time you sought out a departmental or campus service role that you found genuinely meaningful and challenging?
  • How can you widen the distance between who you are and what you do — filling that space with other pursuits, people, and commitments that remind you that there’s more to you than your CV?

Give that a try for a while. Should you still want to leave your tenured professorship in a year or two, you’ll be all the more prepared for the adventure of a lifetime. But you also might discover that, in carrying out this exercise, you’ve opened up a new, more satisfying phase in a long and productive academic career.

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